Hurray for the Riff Raff made a series of country-styled albums before unexpectedly taking a left turn with The Navigator, a concept album about a street child who awakes, like Rip van Winkle, after a 40-year sleep to find her city gentrified and her culture appropriated.
In frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra’s narrative, the street corners of Gotham are haunted by the shades of New Yorkers past and present — not just Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, David Bowie and Suzanne Vega, but also Washington Irving, Walt Whitman and Carson McCullers, and all the way back to the first inhabitants of Manna-hata.
The set drew heavily on The Navigator, with only a smattering of older numbers. They began with its more traditional songs: “Life to Save” with ambling bass and echoing guitar, and then “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” languidly trying to work up into a chorus before an unexpectedly pretty chiming coda.
But then “Hungry Ghost”, with glass-hearted synthesiser chords, channelled CBGB-era Blondie, and the “cautionary tale” of “Ricon Beach”, thick with organ, darkened the mood. “They stole our neighbours/stole our streets”, Segarra sang — and, as the music dropped away, “Take my life, but don’t take my home.” Although written before the US election, its line about promises to “build a wall to keep them out” is more resonant than ever — as was “14 Floors”, when the narrator sings to her immigrant father “They took you when I was asleep”. On the murder ballad “The Body Electric” all of America’s faultlines, from domestic abuse to guns to civil rights, merged into one.
The new songs varied in style: the title track was swaying south-of-the-border rock, “Living in the City” a camera-eyed Velvet Underground monologue. “Settle” played on the word’s twin meanings: putting down roots; but also compromising.
The Navigator’s equivalent of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” is “Pa’lante”, a four-part mini-opera of defiance. It started as a slow piano anthem, then detoured through a Weimarian snare-drum vamp into spoken Nuyorican poetry; then climaxed with Segarra namechecking heroes and heroines and causes, and chanting “Pa’lante” (“forward” or “upward”): half-activist, half preacher.
The final encore was a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, Segarra marching around exuberantly. “It ain’t me, it ain’t me,” she sang, “I ain’t no senator’s son” — with a slight edge, perhaps, from the improbable fact that her mother was deputy mayor of New York.